• 26 Jun - 02 Jul, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The cavalier manner of that beggarly old rip, the defiant look of his deep little eyes, had put a polish on the rancour of one who prided himself on letting no man get the better of him.

All that evening, seated on one side of the fire, while Mrs Ventnor sat on the other, and the younger daughter played Gounod's Serenade on the violin – he cogitated. And now and again he smiled, but not too much.

He did not see his way as yet, but had little doubt that before long he would. It would not be hard to knock that chipped old idol off his perch. There was already a healthy feeling among the shareholders that he was past work and should be scrapped.

The old chap should find that Charles V. was not to be defied; that when he got his teeth into a thing, he did not let it go. By hook or crook he would have the old man off his Boards, or his debt out of him as the price of leaving him alone. His life or his money – and the old fellow should determine which.

With the memory of that defiance fresh within him, he almost hoped it might come to be the first, and turning to Mrs Ventnor, he said abruptly,

"Have a little dinner Friday week, and ask young Pillin and the curate."

He specified the curate, a tee-totaller, because he had two daughters, and males and females must be paired, but he intended to pack him off after dinner to the drawing-room to discuss parish matters while he and Bob Pillin sat over their drink. What he expected to get out of the young man he did not as yet know. On the day of the dinner, before departing for the office, he had gone to his cellar.

Would three bottles of Perrier Jouet do the trick, or must he add one of the old Madeira? He decided to be on the safe side. A bottle or so went very little way with him personally, and young Pillin might be another. The Madeira having done its work by turning the conversation into such an admirable channel, he had cut it short for fear young Pillin might drink the lot or get wind of the rat. And when his guests were gone, and his family had retired, he stood staring into the fire, putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Five or six thousand pounds – six would be ten per cent. On sixty! Exactly! Scrivens – young Pillin had said! But Crow & Donkin, not Scriven & Coles, were old Heythorp's solicitors. What could that mean, save that the old man wanted to cover the tracks of a secret commission, and had handled the matter through solicitors who did not know the state of his affairs! But why Pillin's solicitors? With this sale just going through, it must look deuced fishy to them too. Was it all a mare's nest, after all? In such circumstances he himself would have taken the matter to a London firm who knew nothing of anybody.

Puzzled, therefore, and rather disheartened, feeling too that touch of liver which was wont to follow his old Madeira, he went up to bed and woke his wife to ask her why the dickens they couldn't always have soup like that! Next day he continued to brood over his puzzle, and no fresh light came; but having a matter on which his firm and Scrivens' were in touch, he decided to go over in person, and see if he could surprise something out of them.

Feeling, from experience, that any really delicate matter would only be entrusted to the most responsible member of the firm, he had asked to see Scriven himself, and just as he had taken his hat to go, he said casually,

"By the way, you do some business for old Mr Heythorp, don't you?"

Scriven, raising his eyebrows a little, murmured:

"Er--no," in exactly the tone Mr Ventnor himself used when he wished to imply that though he didn't as a fact do business, he probably soon would. He knew therefore that the answer was a true one. And non-plussed, he hazarded,

"Oh! I thought you did, in regard to a Mrs Larne."

This time he had certainly drawn blood of sorts, for down came Scriven's eyebrows, and he said,

"Mrs Larne – we know a Mrs Larne, but not in that connection. Why?"

"Oh! Young Pillin told me…"

"Young Pillin? Why, it's his……!"

A little pause, and then: "Old Mr Heythorp's solicitors are Crow & Donkin, I believe."

Mr Ventnor held out his hand.

"Yes, yes," he said; "goodbye. Glad to have got that matter settled up," and out he went, and down the street, important, smiling. By George! He had got it! "It's his father…"

Scriven had been going to say. What a plant! Exactly! Oh! Neat! Old Pillin had made the settlement direct; and the solicitors were in the dark; that disposed of his difficulty about them. No money had passed between old Pillin and old Heythorp not a penny. Oh! neat! But not neat enough for Charles Ventnor, who had that nose for rats. Then his smile died, and with a little chill he perceived that it was all based on supposition – not quite good enough to go on! What then? Somehow he must see this Mrs Larne, or better – old Pillin himself.

The point to ascertain was whether she had any connection of her own with Pillin. Clearly young Pillin didn't know of it; for, according to him, old Heythorp had made the settlement. By Jove! That old rascal was deep – all the more satisfaction in proving that he was not as deep as C. V.

To unmask the old cheat was already beginning to seem in the nature of a public service. But on what pretext could he visit Pillin? A subscription to the Windeatt almshouses! That would make him talk in self-defence and he would take care not to press the request to the actual point of getting a subscription. He caused himself to be driven to the Pillin residence in Sefton Park. Ushered into a room on the ground floor, heated in American fashion, Mr Ventnor unbuttoned his coat. A man of sanguine constitution, he found this hothouse atmosphere a little trying. And having sympathetically obtained Joe Pillin's reluctant refusal – Quite so!

One could not indefinitely extend one's subscriptions even for the best of causes! – he said gently,

"By the way, you know Mrs Larne, don't you?"

The effect of that simple shot surpassed his highest hopes. Joe Pillin's face, never highly coloured, turned a sort of grey; he opened his thin lips, shut them quickly, as birds do, and something seemed to pass with difficulty down his scraggy throat. The hollows, which nerve exhaustion delves in the cheeks of men whose cheekbones are not high, increased alarmingly.

For a moment he looked deathly; then, moistening his lips, he said, "Larne – Larne? No, I don't seem…"

Mr Ventnor, who had taken care to be drawing on his gloves, murmured:

"Oh! I thought – your son knows her; a relation of old Heythorp's," and he looked up. Joe Pillin had his handkerchief to his mouth; he coughed feebly, then with more and more vigour:

"I'm in very poor health," he said, at last.

"I'm getting abroad at once. This cold's killing me. What name did you say?"

And he remained with his handkerchief against his teeth. Mr Ventnor repeated,

"Larne. Writes stories."

Joe Pillin muttered into his handkerchief, "Ali! H'm! No – I – no! My son knows all sorts of people. I shall have to try Mentone. Are you going? Good-bye! Good-bye! I'm sorry; ah! ha! My cough – ah! ha h'h'm! Very distressing. Ye-hes! My cough-ah! ha h'h'm! Most distressing. Ye-hes!"

Out in the drive Mr Ventnor took a deep breath of the frosty air. Not much doubt now! The two names had worked like charms. This weakly old fellow would make a pretty witness, would simply crumple under cross-examination. What a contrast to that hoary old sinner Heythorp, whose brazenness nothing could affect. The rat was as large as life! And the only point was how to make the best use of it.

Then – for his experience was wide – the possibility dawned on him, that after all, this Mrs Larne might only have been old Pillin's mistress – or is his natural daughter, or have some other blackmailing hold on him. Any such connection would account for his agitation, for his denying her, for his son's ignorance. Only it wouldn't account for young Pillin's saying that old Heythorp had made the settlement. He could only have got that from the woman herself. Still, to make absolutely sure, he had better try and see her.

But how? It would never do to ask Bob Pillin for an introduction, after this interview with his father. He would have to go on his own and chance it. Wrote stories did she? Perhaps a newspaper would know her address; or the Directory would give it – not a common name! And, hot on the scent, he drove to a post office. Yes, there it was, right enough!

"Larne, Mrs R., 23, Millicent Villas."

And thinking to himself: 'No time like the present,' he turned in that direction. The job was delicate. He must be careful not to do anything which might compromise his power of making public use of his knowledge. Yes-ticklish! What he did now must have a proper legal bottom. Still, anyway you looked at it, he had a right to investigate a fraud on himself as a shareholder of "The Island Navigation Company," and a fraud on himself as a creditor of old Heythorp.

Quite! But suppose this Mrs Larne was really entangled with old Pillin, and the settlement a mere reward of virtue, easy or otherwise. Well! In that case there'd be no secret commission to make public, and he needn't go further. So that, in either event, he would be all right.

Only – how to introduce himself? He might pretend he was a newspaper man wanting a story. No, that wouldn't do! He must not represent that he was what he was not, in case he had afterwards to justify his actions publicly, always a difficult thing, if you were not careful! At that moment there came into his mind a question Bob Pillin had asked the other night.

"By the way, you can't borrow on a settlement, can you? Isn't there generally some clause against it?"

Had this woman been trying to borrow from him on that settlement? But at this moment he reached the house, and got out of his cab still undecided as to how he was going to work the oracle. Impudence, constitutional and professional, sustained him in saying to the little maid,

"Mrs Larne at home? Say Mr Charles Ventnor, will you?"

His quick brown eyes took in the apparel of the passage which served for hall – the deep blue paper on the walls, lilac-patterned curtains over the doors, the well-known print of a nude young woman looking over her shoulder, and he thought:

'H'm! Distinctly tasty!' They noted, too, a small brown-and-white dog cowering in terror at the very end of the passage, and he murmured affably:

"Fluffy! Come here, Fluffy!" till Carmen's teeth chattered in her head.

"Will you come in, sir?"

Mr Ventnor ran his hand over his whiskers, and, entering a room, was impressed at once by its air of domesticity. On a sofa a handsome woman and a pretty young girl were surrounded by sewing apparatus and some white material. The girl looked up, but the elder lady rose.

Mr Ventnor said easily, "You know my young friend, Mr Robert Pillin, I think."

The lady, whose bulk and bloom struck him to the point of admiration, murmured in a full, sweet drawl,

"Oh! Ye-es. Are you from Messrs. Scrivens?"

With the swift reflection: 'As I thought!' Mr Ventnor answered: "Er--not exactly. I am a solicitor though; came just to ask about a certain settlement that Mr Pillin tells me you're entitled under."

"Phyllis dear!" Seeing the girl about to rise from underneath the white stuff, Mr Ventnor said quickly,

"Pray don't disturb yourself – just a formality!"

It had struck him at once that the lady would have to speak the truth in the presence of this third party, and he went on,

"Quite recent, I think. This'll be your first interest on six thousand pounds? Is that right?"

to be continued...